Debate forum 07/02

Debate forum center: Controversy may reveal who or what can be considered a “person”

By: Alex culpepper

Illustration:Sam Rhoden


People who closely watch cetaceans have noticed a few things about them. They are intelligent and curious, and they have all the characteristics you would expect to find with well-developed minds. They have language, culture and complex social structures that include ritual, tribal affiliation and an awareness of self. Though such beings exist and are quite common, we don’t see them very often, and they typically don’t meddle in our affairs. But if you’ve ever been to the ocean or to an aquarium, you’ve certainly crossed paths with them. They are commonly known as dolphins, whales and porpoises, and though they share much of the same biological attributes with people, they have something many of us do not have: lawyers.

Animal advocates have been adding up all the characteristics that make up a dolphin or a whale and they have come to the conclusion that they are pretty much like us in all the meaningful ways that we define ourselves as persons. The next step for people who study and advocate for these creatures is to grant them the same legal rights that we have bestowed upon ourselves. What this means is a whale or dolphin would no longer be considered a thing and instead would be a being with rights, or a person. Such distinctions may be decided in courts if the Nonhuman Rights Project has its way because it intends to bring lawsuits on behalf of two captive animals held in this country.

Supporters of legal rights and personhood for certain animals say it is ethically problematic to deny rights based on what is known about these animals. The claim is these animals have all the same characteristics that define personhood, yet they do not have the rights of a person and should no longer be considered “things.” Supporters argue their brains are similarly as complex as our own with similar social and intellectual capacities. What supporters believe is most important is to establish a legal precedent basing personhood more on intelligence and the capability of emotion and reason rather than scientific designation.

Opponents say we have created the world as is, and animals simply fall into a category where we place them. Some opponents wonder whether animals in zoos would need to be represented by attorneys if they suddenly have legal rights as people do. Opponents also say rights cannot be granted when you have no “coherent rights-player.” In other words, they say it’s not like these animals can form a group and sit before a court and argue their case, and we really don’t know that’s what they want anyhow.

The movement is more about defining a legal foundation for personhood and then moving on from there to decide what rights a nonhuman being has and in what capacity. Supporters say animals such as dolphins and whales are candidates for personhood because they have the intelligence, reasoning powers and cultural characteristics humans have. Opponents argue it would be impossible to give rights as we know them to animals because they are different from us and do not have the ability to enter the “social contract” in which we as people have done.


Reach DCP forum moderator Alex Culpepper at

Debate Forum Question of the week:

Scientists and animal advocates have concluded animals such as dolphins and whales possess many of the same characteristics humans have with regard to intelligence, reason, social bonding and even culture. They believe these traits establish personhood, and they want certain animals to be granted legal rights as persons. Should animals such as whales and dolphins be granted legal rights as persons?

Debate Left: Wading into the murky area of “rights”

By Marianne Stanley


In tackling this discussion about whether or not whales and dolphins have rights, we may be missing the mark entirely. We seem to be discussing here whether those cetaceans should have legal rights, as though only those are real. But, in truth, we can easily see from the tableau of history that legal rights are often nothing more than a man-made way to arbitrarily assign power rather than a way to ensure justice.

For much of history in Western culture, legal rights were only for white male landowners. All others were considered nothing more than “property.” But we are in an evolutionary, pivotal time right now that calls on all of us to access and live from our deeper selves, our higher selves. At that level, we know that all of creation matters. All of it is sacred and all of it has the basic right to exist, unmolested, so it can continue to contribute to the whole. These rights are inherent. Called Universal Law or Natural Law, these fundamental rights are deemed to be God-given. Thus, guys in robes with their own agendas should not be calling the shots nor denying the rights of all sentient creatures. Morality asks more of us than that.

As human beings, we have been given the capacity to not only think and reason, but also to feel, to love and to care. There is nothing admirable in having a brain but no heart, despite the current American “business model” that would have us all believe otherwise. To be less than we are, less than we were created to be, is perhaps the greatest tragedy, the greatest waste, the greatest abomination of all.

Since when has dominion been morphed to mean domination? Since when has man’s capability to control other creatures become his right to do so? Can those who are more powerful, whether it is through brute force or wealth, do whatever they want, whenever and however they want, without any moral responsibility, any basic accountability?

Peter Singer, the great animal rights activist, author and philosopher, said the question should not be, “Can it think?” or “Can it talk?,” but “Can it suffer?” Knowing we are routinely causing pain, suffering and even death to these sea-bound creatures, it is only right to accord them the legal protections they need. No ethical person would think it right to poison his neighbor. Yet we continue to do just that.

Anthropocentrism – the view that we, as humans, are the center of the Universe and that all else is unimportant by comparison – is powerfully attractive to many since it allows us to ignore this harm we inflict on other sentient species, even though they are no less alive and no less committed to remaining alive than we are.

We repeatedly and consistently demonstrate unconscionable arrogance and disrespect towards Earth and its creatures. This new, corporate-driven culture has stripped our very souls bare as it monstrously swallows up time, compassion and the beautiful uniqueness of tens of millions of our countrymen. Just 50 years ago, strong Dayton companies like NCR and Rike’s were headed up by true leaders who proudly retained their humanity while still making a buck. Their employees were well-paid and well-treated. These CEO’s were aware that the workers had names, lives and families. Compassion and common decency weren’t seen as incompatible with corporate goals or profit. Those times are far removed from America today where anything or anyone standing in the way of corporate profits is mowed over, ethics and rights be damned.

Scientific studies tell us that apes and cetaceans like dolphins and whales not only have a highly developed complex brain like ours, but that they also have an actual culture that involves a social network, language, family traditions that are handed down, compassion and an advanced ability for abstract thought and high-level reasoning.

Just as we now know that the world isn’t flat, we also know – or should know – that factory farming is cruel, that giant corporations are poisoning our food and our environment and that fracking threatens not only us but also future generations with its fouling of our communities, air and water. Just as parents give their errant children consequences for their actions, Mother Nature is already serving up some pretty hefty consequences for our own wanton behaviors as failed stewards of the land and its animals. As weather events continue to intensify, will we still pretend that we have no vital, ethical role to play in our laws and practices?

Nature is not there for us to rape, plunder, stab and molest at will. Whales and dolphins don’t belong to us; they belong to themselves. We have no role in “giving” them rights. They have rights. The question is, “Will we back them up with enforceable laws?”

If we are wise and good enough to mirror natural law by incorporating it into our legal system, all societies and species will thrive. We will have taken a stand and taken the high road, the right road. We have been on the wrong track long enough. It’s time for the more enlightened among us to take the wheel and turn this train around.

Marianne Stanley is an attorney, college professor and former journalist who believes many of our nation’s ills could be cured if our children were taught critical thinking skills beginning at the elementary level and continuing through middle and high school. She can be reached at

Debate Right: All animals are created equal, but some apparently more equal than others

By: David H. Landon

There is an organization called The Nonhuman Rights Project that is diligently working towards creating a status of actual “legal” rights for members of species other than humans. Their stated mission is “to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery and human experience entitle them.” By the end of this year. this organization – using the common law writs of habeas corpus and de homine replegiando, which allow a third party to bring a lawsuit on behalf of one who is challenging its status as a legal “thing” – will file lawsuits arguing that certain species should be recognized as a legal “person.”

I’m not entirely certain of the complete list of animals on whose behalf the “Project” seeks to gain “legal” rights, but pictured on their web site are elephants, chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and parakeets. There is an interesting selection process which determines which species the “Project” considered worthy of acquiring the status of having legal rights. In deciding, the organization looks for certain “bedrock qualities” in a species that they argue are present in man. They argue that two of the most fundamental portions of our legal heritage, the concepts of liberty and equality, demand that certain complex cognitive abilities are sufficient grounds for courts to hold that a plaintiff is a legal “person” who then possesses certain fundamental legal rights. There are certainly examples of animals with complex cognitive abilities in the species identified above. Presumably a lack of cognitive ability in many of the anchors found on MSNBC will not affect their status as a legal “person.”

The organization believes that there is an abundance of scientific discovery, including that done by Dr. Jane Goodall, proving that at least some nonhuman animals possess these cognitive abilities. We see traits in some of these animals that we attribute to characteristics found in Homo sapiens. They can communicate, solve problems and they even mourn the loss of their loved ones. Does this mean that we grant them personhood and all of the incumbent rights associated with that status?

Somehow the Project has not included dogs, which I find very surprising. My dearly-departed chocolate lab, Dubya, was a match for any dolphin or chimp you might want to put him up against. He had a very large vocabulary; somewhere around 60 words. If asked to go to his toy bin and pick out any specific toy he would race to the collection of chew toys, root through the basket and pull out the correct toy every time. As for cognitive ability, he unquestionably possessed it. One of his chews was a stuffed replica of Hilary Clinton. If I said, “Go find Hillary,” he would bring the toy back. But he was even more astute. If I said, “Bring me that ‘bad Senator,’” he would race to the bin, dig out Hillary and bring the Hillary toy back, smiling at me with that look of his that said, “You thought I didn’t understand that command!” Don’t tell me Dubya didn’t have cognitive abilities.

I’m an animal person. I love to be around just about any animal. I am outraged and deeply offended when I hear reports of animal abuse. I hope there is a special place in hell for those who abuse animals and children. Why is that? I believe that man, as part of our social contract, has a responsibility to protect animals from unnecessary cruelty. Where we can make laws to protect animals from abuse, we should do so. To the extent that this effort by The Nonhuman Rights Project is about protecting the abuse of animals, I support that sentiment. But I fall short of their stated goals of creating a legal status for these wonderful creatures.

Perhaps my reluctance has Biblical roots, as in a belief that man is the dominant creature as part of God’s plan. As the shepherds of all other creatures and because we have the reason and ability to sort it out, we need to do a better job in our role as protector. We need to take another look at some institutions that we have taken for granted in the way they treat animals, such as the training methods at a circus. We don’t need to grant an elephant personhood status to determine that the use of electric shock as a method of behavior modification is unacceptable.

There was a recent video that went viral showing a bottlenose dolphin snared with a fishing hook on his pectoral fin swimming up to a diver and,w as clearly as one species can ask another, requested help from the diver in removing the hook and tangling fish line. It was an amazing encounter. The dolphin somehow knew the human would help him. The Nonhuman Rights Project would see this as an example of dolphins’ cognitive abilities and why they should be granted personhood status. I believe it only shows that dolphins and other animals can sometimes depend on man to show kindness and respect for those other creatures with which we share the planet.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at



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Alex Culpepper

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